Considering the intimate nature of family law cases, especially divorces, both parties often know incriminating information about each other. For example, if one party has not been completely truthful on his or her tax returns filed with the IRS the other spouse likely knows about it. In some cases, one party may have the grounds for a domestic violence restraining order against the other or be a victim of illegal wiretapping, which was committed by his or her spouse. In a contentious divorce, spouses are often tempted to use sensitive information as leverage in negotiations.
Divorce lawyers have a reputation for being ferocious litigators who have no ethical boundaries when it comes to "taking down" the opposing party. Clients are often surprised when their divorce attorneys actually refuse to threaten civil, criminal or federal prosecution in the negotiation process. Clients imagine that they can tell the other side "Agree to pay me 'X' amount of spousal support for ten years or I will file a restraining order against you" or "If you don't agree to give me full legal and physical custody of the children I will report your real income to the IRS". They often become frustrated that their lawyer will not "fight" for them by using all of the tools in their arsenal.
Contrary to how the lawyer's behavior will seem to the client, a lawyer is actually acting in the client's best interest by refusing to threaten the other side to gain an advantage in litigation. The California Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit all attorneys from threatening "criminal, procedural, administrative, or disciplinary charges to obtain an advantage in a civil dispute". Therefore, a lawyer's hands are tied by his or her ethical obligations. A lawyer would put his or her reputation and career in jeopardy if he or she were to threaten to use misconduct against the other side in a divorce negotiation. In addition to putting the lawyer in a position where he or she may be disciplined by the California state bar, the client risks extortion charges.
A family law litigant that threatens the other side in order to get what they want in a divorce case is also at risk of being sanctioned. In family court, one of the most powerful tools at the judge's discretion is a monetary sanction. If one party frustrates California's policy of settlement between litigants in a divorce action, he or she may be ordered to pay attorney fees and costs to the other side. Depending on the assets of the parties and the egregiousness of the misconduct, significant sanctions can be ordered for tens of thousands of dollars. Overall, threats of criminal, civil or federal prosecution may get you more than you bargained for in a family law case.